Evaluating Miami's season not so simple

Miami ends the regular season with nine wins, its highest total in four seasons. But the Canes must wait another year for a shot to win an ACC championship after stumbling in the Coastal.

This leads to quite the conundrum when evaluating 2013 to date. Did the Hurricanes fail to meet expectations, or did they make enough progress on their climb back up to national relevance?

It is easy to say expectations went unmet, considering Miami was the preseason choice to win the Coastal. It climbed as high as No. 7 in the polls after opening 7-0. That start served to increase those expectations, perhaps unfairly.

Because reality says Miami made it that high thanks to a little bit of luck and a lot of dominoes falling all around it. The eyeball test clearly showed Miami was a good team, but not quite an elite team.

Florida State exposed that truth. The Hurricanes do not have the starting talent, nor the depth to be considered in the same class just yet. Coach Al Golden probably did not need to watch the game to understand that. While that loss was not completely unexpected, dropping games to Virginia Tech and Duke proved to be much more disappointing.

The Hurricanes' defense was exposed against both, and their offense limped along without stellar running back Duke Johnson. Where perhaps Miami fans could accept a loss to Virginia Tech, the loss to Duke was much more puzzling and much more frustrating. The Canes had never lost to Duke as ACC members. They have inherent advantages -- recruiting being the biggest -- that should give them an edge every time they play.

And yet, it was plain to see Duke was the better team. Had Miami won, the Canes would be in Charlotte this weekend. But instead, it is the Blue Devils making an ACC Championship Game appearance before the five-time national champs.

So there is the argument for unfulfilled expectations.

But it also is undeniable that Miami made progress this season. The Canes bounced back to win their last two games and have now won nine games for just the second time in eight seasons. They beat in-state rival Florida. They managed to survive without Johnson, so much so that they now stand on the precipice of a 10-win season for the first time in 10 years. And they will be in a bowl game for the first time under Golden as well.

“This team, they have their minds on winning 10 games,” Golden said after the win over Pitt last week. “Real proud of those guys. They've been through a lot. They fought through it. It's going to be nice to say to those guys we get to go to a bowl game and enjoy that experience and prepare and get the team better.”

Golden has won more games in each successive season he has been head coach, starting with six in 2011, then seven last season, now nine this year. And though Miami looked sluggish at times on offense and defense, both sides improved in seven of the top eight team statistical categories. The only one where there was a dip was passing offense.

It is probably most accurate to say that Miami made progress but still fell short of expectations. The burden of high hopes will always be with this program, and it became harder to carry after the hot start. But focusing on what never came to be takes away from the bigger picture.

Miami can still win 10 games, an important measuring stick for programs. Roughly one quarter of the 124 FBS teams have a shot at 10 wins this year. The Canes are one of them.